Life’s glass, half-full – how Ethel refuses to have life defined by cancer

Cancer patient Ethel Vento Zahra says life is much more than worrying about her disease

Brave Ethel with her daughter and her husband
Brave Ethel with her daughter and her husband

Doctors could have given Ethel Vento Zahra the date of her untimely death. But she chose not to know it. She wants to enjoy her days on earth, not worry about them running out.

The 42-year-old dentist was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer six years ago, but the sickness has spread to other parts of her body. No cure is available for Vento Zahra’s disease, which means that she is taking full stock of life as the days roll on. And it is with a positive outlook on life that she is accepting her fate.

“I don’t want to know the date, I want to see how life pans out. The sickness can define you, but I don’t want it to control me,” she said.

Instead of fearing the prospect of death, Ethel’s greatest fear is losing out on her daughter’s adulthood. “I don’t fear death. I fear not having the same experiences I had with my mother, with my daughter.”

Together with her husband, Ethel has started planning ahead for life following her death. “It’s uncomfortable drawing up your will at 42, knowing full well what awaits you, but these are things which have to be done.”

But Ethel says sufferers shouldn’t think about their predicament as much. “With all the necessary precautions one can take, you could as well step off the kerb and get run over by a car. You have to enjoy life as best you can,” she says, embracing her limitations and working around them. “I try to keep going. I want to experience normality,” she said.

Despite her positive perspective on life, things do get rough on her journey with cancer. “There are times when you feel like giving up and you feel tired all the time. But you have to pick yourself up and go again.”

Ethel’s family remains her constant source for motivation. “Family is the most important thing for me. I want to enjoy my time with them,” she said.

Classified as a vulnerable person due to the sickness, like others with similar conditions Vento Zahra had to endure the full lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is an ongoing challenge. The little things start to add up and sometimes it’s quite hard to keep up with work and my daughter.”

The biggest toll for her has been on her mental health, saying she has become more frustrated and nervous in the lockdown. Having worked in the medical field as a dentist, Ethel said seeing her colleagues working on the front line during the pandemic made her want to help out. “I was always a hands-on person, and so to be stuck inside and doing nothing was a big source of frustration.”

Now undergoing immunotherapy, Ethel says the Malta Community Chest Fund Foundation has played an important part in her journey with the disease. “Thanks to their financial support, medical expenses are one less thing to worry about. It’s important to know someone is supporting you.”

The MCCFF is facing mounting problems due to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and MCCFF relies on the donations of benefactors to sustain its operations, as well as events like Rockestra and the Ball of the August Moon to raise funds. But restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 has meant that such events could not be organized in the same way as previous years, leading to a dip in donations. “Without financial backing, patients would have to resort to cheaper medicines or no medicine at all,” Ethel said, appealing for popular support for the MCFF’s fund-raisers.